Processor Whispers: About Overtakers and the Overtaken
by Christof Windeck
Bad times for the x86 business: share prices are falling through the floor, Intel's Atom gets outrun by the Cortex-A15, and Qualcomm overtakes Intel in terms of market value. On top of everything, Apple is rumoured to be planning to pass on x86 CPUs.
Everyone knows that theory and practice do not always go hand in hand, as Intel is being painfully reminded. The world market leader for semiconductors is unable to transform its advantage in manufacturing technology into performance and market share regarding its Atom processors. Even though we are talking about a low unit volume here, the significance is huge: up to now, they are the only Intel products for the booming smartphone and tablet sector, and the notebook market is struggling. But Intel can only manufacture the Atom with 32nm structures at the moment. A 22nm successor to the tablet Atom Z2760 had once been hinted at for an early 2013 release, but now it seems the Valleyview probably won't be released before late 2013.
Intel is delivering 22nm chips like the Core i7 in large quantities, but with these x86 battleships the edge in manufacturing technology doesn't achieve much, as the competition is extinct. According to Mercury Research, AMD has lost market share and the share price is so low that the whole company could be bought for $1.45 billion. The Atom's ARMed opponents, on the contrary, are doing extremely well. As for smartphone SoCs, Qualcomm has a market share of about fifty per cent and has been earning so well that its market value has now surpassed that of Intel.
Only recently, the world of Atoms had still seemed friendly: the Atom Z2760 allows for light-as-a-feather Windows 8 tablets with extraordinary battery life that until recently would have been hard to imagine for x86 systems. And, until now, Intel could justifiably claim that the Atom is faster than ARM SoCs. But suddenly, the Cortex-A15 pulls ahead: two of these cores are the hearts of the Exynos 5250, which Samsung is soldering into Google's newest Chromebook, the 303C. While currently there are only a few browser benchmarks to go by, the results show the Exynos head and shoulders above, and so there is hardly any doubt: it's faster than the similarly clocked Atom Z2760. Under full load, the Cortex-A15 also consumes more power: the Exynos 5250 comes with a 13cm long metal strip including a heat pipe for heat dissipation. In contrast, the 1.7 watts of the tablet Atom allow for a compact package-on-package design with piggyback RAM, and thus without a large cooler.
The Atom world has changed drastically: at first, Intel's ARM competitor was faster, but consumed too much power. Now, thanks to the S0ix mode, it's more economical but lags behind in computing performance. Before Intel is able to counter with 22nm Atoms, the ARMed competition will probably have lots of time to bring new Windows RT or Android tablets, such as the Nexus 10, to the market.
Meanwhile, speculation is on the rise again that Apple intends to expel Intel from its computers altogether: ARM SoCs developed in-house like the A6 are already powering iOS devices – iPod, iPhone, iPad, Apple TV – and are supposed to soon find their way into MacBooks as well, where, up to now, Core i processors are doing the computing. Considering the unit volume, that would be easy for Intel to digest, but it would send a fatal message: look everyone, first Microsoft (with Windows RT tablets like the Surface) and then Google (with the previously mentioned Chromebook), and now Apple can also do without x86. On closer examination, however, it seems rather unlikely that Apple would be interested in such a move.
In contrast to its transition from PowerPC to x86 chips in 2006, current ARM SoCs do not offer more, but much less computing power than even the most energy-saving Ultrabook versions of the Core i5. A rough estimate: Apple would have to design an ARM chip with four to six times the CPU performance of the brand new A6X inside the fourth generation iPad. As for the floating-point performance, the gap is even bigger. And Intel is promising 10-watt Haswell processors for 2013 that outperform the current 17 watt versions – not to even mention the quad-cores. And hence it seems unlikely that Apple would invest much effort into a branch that only accounts for fifteen per cent of the turnover. In the past fiscal year, desktop Macs brought in around $6 billion and MacBooks $17 billion, but the iPad alone accounted for $32 billion, about forty per cent more than all x86 products together.
The speculations about Apple's plans to quit x86 might stem from elsewhere: business experts like Dean McCarron (Mercury Research) and Nathan Brookwood (Insight 64) deem it possible that Intel could take on the role of contract manufacturer for Apple's ARM SoCs. And already the Taiwanese Digitimes is reporting rumours that Apple's current ARM manufacturing partner Samsung is cutting planned investments into a new fab because Apple is looking for other options.
On the occasion of the 2012 Super Computing conference (SC12), AMD announced good news about the Opterons inside the Titan, the leader of the latest Top500 list, or the graphics accelerator FireGL 10000. Also, Trinity (Series A), Vishera (FX) and Abu Dhabi (Opteron 6300) have finally entered the market. But the future looks dark: roadmap images from the internet suggest that Steamroller processors with faster Bulldozer technology are not to be expected in 2013 after all. Also the FM2 chip Kaveri, which was supposed to provide the first hints of the Hybrid System Architecture HSA, is missing from these roadmaps.
It seems that Richland is scheduled to be released instead, which appears to be no more than a new version of Trinity, shrunk down to 28nm. It will probably stand no chance against Intel's Haswell. The chances of success for the Opterons with 64-bit ARM cores for servers, expected in 2014, are difficult to guess: neither will AMD be the first supplier in this sector – Marvell, Applied Micro, Calxeda and NVIDIA are raring to go – nor does the company possess any special know-how relating to network or storage processors. So the question arises: what advantages might an ARM chip from AMD have to offer? Until now, apart from vague ideas concerning the Hybrid System Architecture, we know only about the Freedom Fabric of the acquired company SeaMicro, which was designed as an efficient I/O interconnect for lower-performance micro-servers.